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Report: Dueling Stimulus Goals Tough to Implement

It's been almost two years since Congress passed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included some $100 billion for education. The legislation was supposed to a) save and create jobs, b) prevent program cuts, and c) spur major education overhaul.

So, did it work?

That's the question that researchers at Bellwether Education Partners are trying to answer in a forthcoming report. The report was written, in part, by Sara Mead, who blogs over at Sara Mead's Policy Notebook.

The consulting organization concluded that:

• Most districts used the stimulus money to maintain spending levels. But a few tried new tactics, especially around human resource issues.

• The U.S. Department of Education was late in providing guidance for some stimulus programs, and sent "mixed messages" about whether the funds were supposed to be used for reforms, to save jobs, or both. That created confusion at the district level about what the money should be used for.

• The recovery act included a lot of new money for Title I and special education. But because the funds were for existing programs, many districts were reluctant to direct it to new purposes, the report found.

• Districts that did use the money in new and creative ways did so mostly because of local factors (such as effective leaders), not necessarily because of anything special the feds did.

• The budget issues the stimulus tried to solve weren't temporary. They are a "long-term and systemic problem," the report says. Many districts tried to spend the money in ways that would minimize the impact of the "funding cliff" (the drop-off in federal finances now that the money has stopped flowing). But in some cases, there was just no way around the funding-cliff issue.

The report's authors have drawn some conclusions, namely:

• Race to the Top, the $4.35 billion competition among states, was successful at spurring change because that was its chief goal. It was very tough for schools and states to combine the education-redesign and economic-development goals of the stimulus.

• The feds may been better off if they had more clearly told districts what NOT to do with their stimulus funds (discouraging ineffective practices).

• The feds should work to help school districts make hard choices, not put them off.

• Policymakers at all levels should put a high priority on helping districts build capacity.

The report was financed by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (which also helps fund coverage of the stimulus in Education Week.)

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